From briefly assisting the first charioteer of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement to leading to fruition the project that the BJP unleashed in 1990, the political career of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been enmeshed with the issue of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya.
While his role as the organiser of L K Advani’s Ram Rath Yatra in its Gujarat leg in September 1990 went largely unnoticed at the time, Modi will on Wednesday (August 5) announce the triumphant culmination of the campaign that the Rath Yatra unleashed nearly 30 years ago, when he lays the foundation stone of the Temple.
When Modi launched his political march towards New Delhi from Gujarat, he seemed not to have been keen on being overwhelmingly identified with the ideological cause of the Ram Temple.
During his two successful election campaigns in 2014 and 2019, Modi avoided visiting the then disputed temple site. In 2014, at a time the BJP was expecting to reap the maximum electoral benefit from Uttar Pradesh, he addressed an election rally close to Ayodhya, but did not go to Ram Janmabhoomi site.
Then, in 2019, when he was seeking re-election, Modi skipped another visit to the site — when he addressed a public rally in Gosainganj just 27 km from Ayodhya on May 1, 2019. As Prime Minister in his first term, Modi refrained from referring to Ayodhya or the Ram Temple.
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However, after the Supreme Court cleared the decks for the construction of the Temple on November 9 last year, the Prime Minister made it clear that he would like to be known as the driving force behind the initiative for the construction in Ayodhya.
In an unusual move on February 5 this year, he chose to announce in Lok Sabha the Union Cabinet’s decision to set up a Trust for the construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya. His announcement of the “important and historic decision” was significant — because it was Home Minister Amit Shah who had been seen as taking the lead in pushing the legislative initiatives of the government aimed at fulfilling the BJP’s core ideological agenda. Indeed, it was Shah, and not Modi, who had been the face and the voice of the government as it moved to strip Jammu and Kashmir of its special status under Article 370 of the Constitution, and pass the amendment to the citizenship law.
“My government has decided to set up a trust called Sri Ram Janmabhoomi Teertha Kshetra, which will take decisions independently on the construction of a Ram temple and related issues,” the PM told Lok Sabha, and urged the nation to work towards building a new India without bitterness.
According to a BJP office bearer, Modi had never been closely associated with the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. “For the Rath Yatra, (the late) Pramod Mahajan was the second-in-command to Advaniji, like Modi was to Murli Manohar Joshiji in his Ekta Yatra (from Kanyakumari to Kashmir for national integration in 1991). And it was his conscious decision not to be identified with Ayodhya movement after he came into the national scene as the matter was in the court,” the leader said.
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It was after the BJP’s dismal electoral performance in 1984 — it got only two seats in Lok Sabha — the party, along with its ideological parent RSS, decided to use the temple issue to both gain national recognition as well as achieve electoral growth. It yielded spectacular results — the party won 89 seats in the elections of 1989.
When Advani launched the Rath Yatra, Modi, then a member of the BJP’s national election committee, was tasked with coordinating the Yatra from Somnath to Mumbai. In those initial years, however, his role was overshadowed by the BJP’s stalwarts in Gujarat, such as Keshubhai Patel, Shankersinh Vaghela, and even Kashiram Rana. The Gujarat riots of 2002 changed everything.
On February 27, 2002, only months after Modi had taken over as Chief Minister of Gujarat, a train carrying more than 2,000 passengers, including those who were returning after kar seva in Ayodhya, was attacked in Godhra. Fifty-nine kar sevaks were burned to death. The incident triggered riots in Gujarat, and more than a thousand people were killed, most of them Muslims. While Modi maintained that he had done everything in his power to contain the rioting, his critics accused him of having remained indifferent at best, and allowing the rioters a free rein at worst.
The Gujarat riots deeply polarised Hindus and Muslims in the country, and left a scar on Modi’s image. His political rivals always highlighted the riots to attack him – Congress president Sonia Gandhi referred to him as “maut ka saudagar” (merchant of death) during the 2007 Gujarat Assembly election campaign, and it was this issue that was cited by leaders like Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar to put a distance between him and the BJP, albeit for a brief period.
Some political observers even attributed the unexpected defeat of Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections to the Gujarat riots. Vajpayee told a television channel that the “impact of the Gujarat riots was felt nationwide… Modi should have been removed after the incident”. However, Advani had called Modi a victim of a vilification campaign over the Gujarat riots.
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Modi was to say later that “I had used the stones thrown at me to build stairs for me to climb”. The Gujarat incidents and the attacks on him helped him to emerge as the most prominent political leader of Hindutva, and his leadership produced an unprecedented consolidation of Hindu votes behind the BJP.
While Modi himself chose development as his agenda for 2014, the BJP put the construction of the Ram temple under the subhead ‘Cultural Heritage’ in its election manifesto. “BJP reiterates its stand to explore all possibilities within the framework of the Constitution to facilitate the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya,” it said.
The temple remained the BJP’s go-to issue in its efforts to keep “Hindu sentiments” charged. During the 2017 Uttar Pradesh Assembly election, Ayodhya was back in the party’s electioneering lexicon. Modi’s government took steps to keep emotions around the temple high.
Ahead of the UP elections, it announced a Ramayan Museum in Ayodhya and, in January 2019, when the VHP was clamouring for legislation to build the temple, the central government moved the Supreme Court seeking the lifting of the status quo on the non-disputed land around the disputed site, and the handing over of the surplus to the original owners.